John and Denise DeBartolo York like Nolan and they don’t want to have to pay off the last two years of his contract. But the reality is that it will cost them much more than those two years to keep him. Nolan is one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league; paying off the remainder of his five-year, $8 million contract would cost them $3.2 million.
This year’s team was billed as a playoff contender, by Nolan and others, and is stumbling to a probable 3-13 finish. If Nolan returns, how would you like to go back to 49ers season ticket-holders and ask them to re-up? The damage would extend over years, too, because those dropping out will be in no hurry to return.
This is not the worst 49ers team I’ve seen. That dubious honor goes to the 1978 team, although the 2004 team isn’t far behind. Both were 2-14.
But this may be the most unwatchable team because it has such a limited offense. It’s on pace to score the fewest points for a 49ers team in a 16-game season and its average of less than 13 points a game is the lowest in 49ers history.
The latest loss, 27-7 to Minnesota, was another example. In the first half, the Vikings took a 27-0 lead and the 49ers had only 79 yards of offense. In the second half, the Vikings’ defense played soft and Shaun Hill threw underneath with success, but this is not a feel-good story. Against normal defenses, Hill will falter and fall into the dustbin of history with some of the quarterbacks who followed John Brodie: Tom Owen, Dennis Morrison, Joe Reed, Scott Bull. Remember them? I didn’t think so.
It will never get any better under Nolan, either, because the veteran players neither like nor respect him. Players don’t usually talk on the record about this type of thing — though Frank Gore and Alex Smith have made telling comments — but they tell their friends and agents, who pass the word. I started hearing this talk early in the season, which surprised me because the 49ers won their first two games. The talk has only increased since.
The most telling game was the Monday night game in Seattle. Nolan’s dad, Dick, had died that weekend, after a week in which the news had been full of stories of Dick’s imminent death. A team that was behind its coach would have been on an emotional mission against the Seahawks. Instead, the 49ers came out flatter than a pancake and suffered another crushing defeat.
The team has played with passion in only one game, the stirring overtime road win over the Arizona Cardinals. The defense has played well sporadically, but overall, the talent level is much higher than the performance. Nolan has had total responsibility for this team, both in putting it together and coaching it. Bill Walsh had the same responsibility and, by his third season, he had a Super Bowl champion. Nolan’s third season is his worst.
There’s much work ahead for the Yorks. The 49ers need a general manager to help their strong personnel guy, Scot McCloughan. But most of all, they need a new coach.